Mother Jones, Followed by National Review — yes, National Review — Misrepresents the Texas Textbook Review Process

Debate always involves at least two sides. Two sides typically means additional, comparative information and, with that, a greater likelihood of informed choice. The thankfully rare insistence that “one side only” be heard is, then, antagonistic to debate and informed choice.
One-sidedness is bad in law and government; how could we have meaningful trials and elections without at least two sides? One-sidedness is no better in science and science education, for progress in these areas typically requires tension between old and new, majority and minority viewpoint, proposition and critique (i.e., two sides).
In Texas, where, due to buying power, textbook adoption decisions shape K-12 education for the entire nation, textbook reviewers and publishers have been known to debate which subjects and viewpoints should be included in textbooks, and which should not. Earlier this week, in fact on Constitution Day (September 17), the Texas State Board of Education in fine constitutional tradition debated and heard public testimony on textbooks that will, if adopted, teach our students for years to come.
One of the major points at issue is whether the Texas Board will require new biology textbooks to be consistent with the state’s science standards, which demand that students “in all fields of science … analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.” (emphasis added)
Of course, not everyone is happy with Texas’s insistence on two-sidedness in science. The one-siders always tell us that the inclusion of more than one side in science class is just a way to sneak religion and politics into public schools. And some in media are more than willing to carry the one-siders’ message of fear. But that message is contrary to what is actually happening in Texas.
The Texas Education Agency (TEA) selects people to review textbook submissions for their accuracy and for their coverage of Texas science standards, including the requirement that students examine “all sides of scientific evidence.” Dr. Ray Bohlin, a Discovery Institute Fellow and Texas resident, was one of many textbook reviewers appointed by the TEA this year. Having earned his PhD in molecular and cell biology, along with an MS in population genetics, Dr. Bohlin was eminently qualified for the biology textbook review team.
In keeping with the TEA’s job description, and with the Texas science standards’ mandate that students learn “all sides of scientific evidence,” Dr. Bohlin made the following remarks in his review of a biology textbook:

  • “The discussions of climate change, the Cambrian explosion, the origin of life and human evolution fail to grapple with the accumulating contrary and refuting evidence of how these theories are evaluated. A definite one-sided approach is used.”
  • “The text continuously reflects only one side of a particular scientific discussion especially climate change and many areas of evolution.”
  • “Where the authors, as addressed above, do not examine all sides of the evidence, they demonstrate their willingness to impact society apart from the evidence and in accordance [with] predetermined political viewpoints.”
  • “Hopefully a future edition will include examples or at least a mention of other RNA editing processes including addition and deletion of individual nucleotides from an mRNA transcript. These nucleotide specific processes have been known for some time and add considerable complexity to the system. This should be included if for no other reason than to say there is still so much for future scientists to discover.”
  • “This is a good place to emphasize that even defining what a gene is has become so much more complicated. The old idea of one gene one protein simply doesn’t exist anymore. Single proteins can now be made from exons that may come from different chromosomes. These chromosomal segments must be in 3D space with each other to be properly put together meaning that the chromosomes themselves must first be arranged properly for the protein to be made. We have no idea how that happens.”
  • “In order for anatomical homologies to be true homologies we should expect the homologous structures to be formed by the same or very similar genes, but there are many examples in the literature where homologous structures arise from different genes and where seemingly homologous genes Distal-less) do not give rise to homologous structures in different organisms. Again another opportunity is lost for students to grapple with evidence and develop critical thinking skills.”
  • “No evaluation is possible when the abundant contrary evidence is not even mentioned let alone discussed.”
  • “This would be a wonderful place to discuss the mysteries concerning the evolution of sexual reproduction in the first place and also the problem of evolving complete metamorphosis. Critiquing evolutionary theories requires discussion of problems as well as evidence for evolution.”
  • “Tying social behaviors to evolutionary fitness does not assist the educational goals of this [standard]. Especially describing kin selection is problematic. It is still controversial.”

This is a representative sample of Dr. Bohlin’s comments, which generally call for inclusion of more information in a biology textbook and candid admission of what we don’t yet know. A scientist asking for more science and more humility (not religion) in science education should not be news.
However, the reflexively left-of-center magazine Mother Jones (MoJo) decided it would turn Dr. Bohlin’s comments into “news.”
MoJo reporter Josh Harkinson recently reported that Dr. Bohlin “told the [biology textbook] publisher Pearson/Prentice Hall that climate change isn’t real because we ‘don’t really know that the carbon cycle has been altered,'” and that “… we don’t know what climate change will do to species diversity.” Harkinson called these comments “ideological objections” and then accused Dr. Bohlin of “promo[ting]” Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell because Dr. Bohlin included the following comment in his review:

There is no discussion of the origin of information bearing molecules which is absolutely essential in any origin of life scenario. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell easily dismisses any RNA first scenario. The authors need to get caught up.

Elsewhere in his review, Dr. Bohlin urges Pearson/Prentice Hall to refer to How and Why Species Multiply, by Peter and Rosemary Grant, reviewed favorably by the National Center for Science Education.
Here’s what Dr. Bohlin told the publisher:

The Behavioral Isolation section on page 497 involving Galapagos finches is incomplete. Mate selection has little to do with beak size and everything to do [with] mating song. Hybridization can occur when a developing male hears another related species song more frequently and this song gets imprinted. See How and Why Species Multiply by Peter and Rosemary Grant, p. 77-78.

Is this also an “ideological objection?” Or self-interested “promo[tion]?” Or is this, again, just a scientist critiquing science with science? You know, a guy doing his job?
Harkinson can’t really fault Dr. Bohlin with his own words, so he tries to tar him with the words of a different, anonymous reviewer who wrote:

I understand the National Academy of Science’s [sic] strong support of the theory of evolution. At the same time, this is a theory. As an educator, parent, and grandparent, I feel very firmly that “creation science” based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into every Biology book that is up for adoption.

Granted, this reviewer would put religion in biology textbooks, if it were up to him/her, but fortunately it’s not. The Texas state science standards don’t allow that. Federal constitutional law doesn’t allow that. That’s simply not the job.
Reviewers are supposed to determine the extent to which publisher-submitted textbooks accurately cover Texas science standards. That’s it. Even though this reviewer offered a religiously motivated, post-review comment on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s submission, the review panel to which the reviewer belongs gave the submission a perfect score. This means that, despite the throwaway comment, religion did not affect the reviewer’s ability to do the job.
I expect MoJo to distort the record to get their readers all worked up. That’s what they do. But, as a longtime reader of National Review Online (NRO), I’m genuinely surprised that a writer at NRO would turn out to be one of those worked up readers.
Last week, in a post titled Texas Texts, NRO‘s Kevin D. Williams uncritically relayed MoJo‘s scare quote, below, to needlessly alarm a completely different readership:

“[C]reation science” based on Biblical principles should be incorporated into every Biology book that is up for adoption.”

More than passive relay, Williams actively transmutes this anonymous, context-less line into 1164 words of crazy-dude-on-the-bus; his word salad involves the following references:

  • “Evangelical knuckleheadedness”
  • “Satanist Cults”
  • “The Star of David”
  • “Science is hard”
  • “[T]he Catholic Church”
  • “[D]etailed census of Hell”
  • “Nietzsche”
  • “George Gilder”
  • “[S]teer[ing] an aircraft carrier with a wooden oar”

(You see? It’s all connected, man.)
Fortunately, Texans know how to check crazy. Whether in science, law, government, or media, they know that the best check on the, um, excesses of one side is the inclusion of a second, critical side. Maybe next time NRO will ask Dr. Bohlin rather than Kevin D. Williams to check the excesses of Mother Jones.